Low turnout among young voters is hardly a new phenomenon in the United States. In 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified, lowering the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 in time for the elections the following year. But since then, from 1972 to 2012, those between the ages of 18 and 29 voted at rates 15 to 20 percent lower than those older than 30. And in 2014, only 19.9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the congressional elections, an all-time low for the youth demographic.
While some might blame indifference or ignorance, I think it’s fair to say that apathy isn’t the watchword anymore. It’s despair. There is a depressing wave of hopelessness sweeping the country’s younger generation, and nowhere is it manifesting itself more than in the political arena.
It is political cynicism that persuaded several young black activists to decide not to vote for president in the upcoming general election. Kelton Latson, a student at Cleveland State University, told NPR that he didn’t believe his vote would make a difference in the system. “My views on voting now — is just that, overall, your vote doesn’t really mean much as far as the system,” he said, and instead places his faith in local politics and community engagement. Activist Koya Graham also prioritizes local activism above national politics, and will not be voting partially due to disappointment that not much has been done for the black community under President Obama. “I’m not interested anymore. I don’t see any immediate, significant changes happening,” Graham said.
It’s not hard to see why young voters might not have faith in America’s system of government, or in those who are running it. We only have to look to this past month’s debate on gun control to see a broken system in action. The tragedy in Orlando spurred renewed efforts among democrats to pass tighter gun control restrictions. Never before did the momentum seem stronger amidst an ever-stagnant debate. Senators and representatives like Chris Murphy and Elizabeth Warren demanded to be heard through impassioned and stirring stunts, like the 15-hour “filibuster” and the day-long sit-in.
But while these stunts sparked a social media firestorm, many predicted that nothing substantial would come of it. And they were right. Every subsequent gun control measure was shot down in the Senate, and our government proved once more that mass shootings are not enough to sway partisan politics. Despite a recent poll showing that 92% of Americans are in favor of expanded background checks, the status quo remained intact. Instead of progress favored by an overwhelming majority of Americans, what we got was yet another reason to lose hope for real societal change.
Of course, hopelessness isn’t the only factor affecting youth turnout at the ballots. Recent voter restriction laws in several states create obstacles for many young voters, especially students. In Texas, for example, you cannot vote using a student ID, but you can vote using a gun license. Furthermore, candidates typically don’t cater enough to the young demographic probably because they comprise only a small fraction of overall voters, which in turn causes more young voters to feel neglected, creating a negative feedback loop. Research on voter demographics for the 2014 midterm elections found that the number one reason 18- to 29-year-olds didn’t vote was being “too busy, conflicting with work,” and indeed many young voters are at a disadvantage because their low-paying, unstable jobs have little flexibility. This is exactly the kind of issue that the youth need candidates to care about.
However, the second biggest reason cited was: “Not interested, felt my vote wouldn’t count.” And that represents a loss of faith in the efficacy of government.
While I do think that there is some validity to say that your own individual vote might not matter in the grand scheme of things, it is dangerous to perpetuate that belief among the masses. Yes, one person who chooses not to vote probably won’t dramatically change the landscape of politics overnight. But hundreds of people who don’t vote? Thousands? That is how you get political leaders who don’t represent your interests elected into office.
What’s also fueling the sentiment of hopelessness is not just the disbelief that politicians can make a difference in the everyday lives of citizens, but also that grassroots and local efforts matter more than what’s happening at the very top.
It is true that presidents have limitations, and it’s smart to acknowledge that. Recognizing those limitations is key to understanding why idealism isn’t enough to be a good politician – one must also be proficient at the art of shrewd compromising. At the same time, it isn’t prudent to dismiss the real change that presidents and higher officials have the potential to enact.
Take Obamacare, for instance. The Affordable Care Act is far from perfect, as both liberals and conservatives would agree. However, it is clear that millions of Americans have health insurance today because of it, at costs lower than expected. And the law established for the first time that health care is a basic human right that should be provided by the government. How did such a progressive and partisan bill become law? Through a combination of idealism and pragmatism under Obama’s leadership. “We didn’t give in to mistrust or to cynicism or to fear,” Obama remarked back in 2010. “Instead, we proved that we are still a people capable of doing big things.” Obamacare proves that it is possible for our federal government to push through the political quagmire.
So yes, community engagement and activism are essential to improving lives, absolutely. These local efforts can enact more immediate and direct benefits that national politics ever could. But it can’t be an either/or situation. We’ve got to have both. And that’s where voting comes in. We know which senators voted for or against stricter gun control measures, for instance. How can it not be our duty to make sure the senators who represent our interests continue to be heard?
But it can be difficult to see the broader picture when you’re alone in a voting booth. What is the point of participating in a process so corrupt and loggerheaded that it makes one voice seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the well-oiled machine of bureaucracy?
Former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart couldn’t help but feed into this brand of cynicism when he was a guest on the podcast The Axe Files with David Axelrod earlier this year. Speaking in front of thousands of young political minds at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics, Stewart compared Washington D.C. to a cesspool. “There are some good people trying to survive within the lava, but it’s a fucking horror show,” he said. Stewart cited the difficulties of getting the Zadroga Act (which provides health care for 9/11 first responders) passed as one of the reasons he is so disgusted with the bureaucratic nature of government. “If it takes that effort to do something that easy,” Stewart said, “it is a system that must be […] self-perpetuating in a way that is dangerous at this point.” He doesn’t just blame the Republicans. He also holds the Democrats responsible for not doing enough to prove to the people that government can be effective and efficient.
It’s easy to fall under Stewart’s thrall of depressing facts surrounding our political climate. But what then? What does it take to remain optimistic about political change in this country?
It’s becoming more and more of an impossible task for young voters. In the end, cynicism is a conscious decision to turn your back on a system deemed to be too irrevocably damaged to be fixed. Cynicism is a choice in the hands of well-informed and passionate voters who say they’ve had enough. Cynicism is easy. Hope requires hard work. Optimism goes hand-in-hand with relentless activism and awareness. It accepts government’s limitations, but retains a determination for improvement. Community action and national politics are both required to steer our country towards a brighter horizon. Political optimism is something we can choose – if we wanted to.